Where have you gone, Billy Crystal?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Grace Vuoto

Another American institution is in peril: The Oscars.

That’s like reporting that apple pie no longer sells well in our supermarkets. How can such a signature American event, watched by millions of viewers at home and abroad, now be so lackluster?

This year’s Academy Awards broadcast was a sad, pathetic sight. The most glaring omission: there was no host. Imagine entering a home and instead of being greeted by a warm smile, handshake, offered coffee and cookies, you are instead told by a voice overhead to just wander around on your own. The unifying presence is gone: The house feels desolate regardless of how many people wander aimlessly in its corridors.

The Billy Crystal-hosted Academy Awards in 2005 attracted 42.1 million viewers. / Getty

As I watched in horror, I missed former hosts like actor and comedian Billy Crystal. He knew how to open the Oscars with all the pizazz, glitz, glamour and humor that were worthy of the moment.

In 2004, when Crystal was at the helm, 43.5 million Americans tuned in. Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg could also achieve similar high ratings as hosts of the ceremony. What did they have in common? They conveyed, first and foremost, that this is entertainment.

The hosts who succeeded in captivating an audience understood that this is just showbiz. The yearly broadcast is not a university lecture, a sermon, or a political revolution: since its first radio broadcast in 1930, the Academy Awards has never and will never find the cure to cancer or alleviate world hunger. In fact, the best hosts understood that the ceremony’s primary objective is to provide relaxation and a good time.

Therein we find our common humanity: The need to decompress, escape our troubles and laugh is truly universal. Entertainment is a unifying force when no one takes it too seriously.

This year, however, these simple truths have vanished. Oscar viewership was at its second lowest ever. It appears more people tuned in than they did for the disastrous 2018 show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel that garnered 26.5 million viewers, the record low.

Yet, a slight bump from a record low is no cause for celebration. In fact, it is even more distressing that a hostless show is considered to be an improvement. This demonstrates that the nation is so polarized we cannot even agree on who is to be our clown for a few hours.

The 91st Academy Awards was also distinguished by a repeated and deliberate attempt to highlight the diversity amongst us. For example, actor Javier Bardem delivered the introduction for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in Spanish.

“There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent,” he said. “In any region of any country of any continent, there are always great stories that move us. And tonight, we celebrate the excellence and importance of the cultures and languages of different countries.”

Bardem’s message was a clear rejection of President Donald Trump’s agenda to build a wall along the southern border. But what could he possibly achieve? Did any Trump supporter who chants “build that wall” at political rallies suddenly change his mind because a multi-millionaire actor in black tie has an alternate view?

In addition, Rami Malek, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Queen frontman Freddy Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” emphasized that he is the son of Egyptian immigrants and that more immigrant stories are needed in Hollywood.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, winner of he Best Director Oscar for “Roma,” a Spanish-langue film about indigenous workers without rights, also echoed the same themes in his speech. Apparently, they mistook the useless gold trophy for an honorary doctorate.

Diversity is indeed a cause for celebration when we still have a common, unifying national thread. But when that is gone, diversity simply means divorce.

We are a divorced nation now.

Consider if a married couple pursued the goal of diversity every year of their marriage? Eventually, they would no longer be on speaking terms and when you came to their house, there would be no host.

Where did you go Billy Crystal? I long for the days when comedians knew a thing or two about the glories, virtues and wisdom of sheer, unadulterated, pure laughter.

Grace Vuoto, Ph. D, is a WorldTribune columnist.